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Eateries, luxury brands ditching plastic for sturdy, dark paper straws from central Japan

The sturdy paper straws that have been used even by luxury brands are seen in the city of Kofu on July 16, 2021. (Mainichi/Satoru Yamamoto)

KOFU -- A new type of black, paper straw developed by a Japanese nonprofit organization is garnering popularity for its robust structure stopping it from getting soggy in drinks and its lack of any distinctive papery smell.

    The "forestraw" developed by the incorporated nonprofit in central Japan's Yamanashi Prefecture has been adopted by some nationwide chains' restaurants amid moves to ditch plastic. Sales volumes in fiscal 2021 so far are already surging toward 1.5 times the previous fiscal year's total.

    The straws were developed by city of Kofu-based Microplastic measures office, which is made up of individuals connected with four companies involved in paper wholesaling and printing businesses. It spent about 2 years devising the straws made using wood materials taken from prefectural forests, and first put them on sale in March 2020.

    According to the group, because paper straws developed up until now have a distinct paper taste when used, and tend to fall apart when left in drinks for extended periods, the products have been shied away from by some businesses. The group was told by individuals connected to restaurants and bars that some customers expressed being so bothered by lipstick marks left on paper straws that they took them home.

    It was because of this that the group chose a special blackish-brown ink for the straws. Its color means lipstick tones are not noticeable, and the colors don't blur when placed in water. The ink reportedly is extracted from plants and isn't harmful to the body.

    The nonprofit also partnered with a company that has special technology to make it even harder for the straws to become soggy. Three layers of thin paper are bonded with glue, and then wrapped to avoid them coming apart. To prove that they are made from wood materials from appropriately-managed forests, the internationally-recognized Forest Stewardship Council logo is printed along the straws.

    The devotion to quality means the straws are around five times the cost of standard plastic straws. Even so, family restaurant chain Denny's has been using them at its Yamanashi Prefecture outlets since August 2020, and from August 2021 it has also introduced them to stores in Tokyo's Adachi Ward. It intends to spread their uptake to its other capital-area restaurants in the future.

    The public relations department at Seven & i Food Systems Co., the Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo-based firm that manages Denny's restaurants, told the Mainichi Shimbun that the straws were receiving particularly good feedback from female customers: "They're very strong and don't get soft, and they're comfortable to use with no feeling of them touching the lips (like there is with plastic straws)."

    The nonprofit says that since July 2020, 20 of the French high-end fashion brand Chanel's stores in Japan have been using the straws when attending to regular customers. European vehicle dealerships in Tokyo have been using them since September this year, too. They have also had inquiries from a luxury Japanese-cuisine restaurant in Yokohama.

    In fiscal 2020, the group sold 201,000 straws. By the end of October in fiscal 2021, sales had recorded a consistent rise and 272,000 straws had been sold. Inquiries continue to come in, and the group reportedly gets about 50 telephone calls regarding them each month.

    Among the factors behind the increasing interest are the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) initiative, which includes among their targets calls for businesses to engage in efforts to move away from using plastic. Amid calls for a paperless society, paper-industry businesses and others are hoping the straws will spark interest in the material. In the future, the nonprofit intends for the straws to appear at trade fairs for hotel equipment, and to sell them as promotional items for businesses interested in environmental protection.

    The nonprofit's director told the Mainichi Shimbun about his hopes for the product, saying, "We want interest in environmental issues and paper products to spread from everyone's mouths."

    (Japanese original by Satoru Yamamoto, Kofu Bureau)

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